I had heard of this book but was never really sure what it was about, however when I read the first few chapters I suddenly realised that I have seen the story before – Trading Places. Okay, there are a few differences, such as the themes, however the plot is pretty much the same. Clements does indicate that this was not his original idea, suggesting that he has heard this story from some other place, though he is unsure as to the truth of it or not. The end notes do suggest that Clements had done any research, but whether it is true or not it is still quite an enjoyable adventure.
The story is about two boys, a poor boy named Tom Cantry and Prince Edward, the crown prince of England. Both boys were born at the same time on the same day and have a remarkable similarity. However, if it was not for a twist of fate they would never have met and this strange adventure would never have happened. As it turns out, Tom, despite his poverty, did have a little education due to the actions of a kindly priest, and Edward happened to have been allowed to go to the gates of the palace one day and rescued Tom from the hands of the guard. The thing about Tom was that he had a dream of meeting a prince, however it ended up that he got a lot more than he ever expected.
While wandering around Westminster Tom stumbles upon the crown prince and is invited into the castle. While talking in the princes' room, they exchange clothes, and the prince then goes outside, is mistaken for Tom, and thrown out of the castle. Tom, on the other hand, is mistaken for the prince, and despite his protestations to the contrary, is suddenly kept inside the palace with no way out. Both boys are diagnosed with madness and end up becoming prisoners of their class. Tom knows his heritage but is unable to escape the palace, and the prince, in his beggarly rags, cannot convince anybody of his royal heritage, particularly since everybody thinks the prince is in the palace, and the palace is keeping tight lipped about the princes' madness.
Many people these days talk about income inequality, however the distinction is nowhere near as evident as it is in this book. In this period, during the reign of Henry VIII, there was no middle class, only the nobility and the commoners, and neither of them would mix. The commoners would look up at the nobility in awe and the nobility would look down on the commoners in scorn. There was pretty much no way, but by the grace of God and the King, that anybody could move between the two classes. These days at least we have a semblance of wealth, and can live quite comfortable and easy lives without having millions of dollars in the bank.
It is interesting to see how wealth and status do not necessarily bring freedom. Tom lives in the palace and has everything provided for him, however he is not free to go where he wants or to do what he wants. In fact everything, including the clothes that he wears, is dictated to him. Further, he is also a prisoner in the sense that nobody is allowed to touch him or to mistreat him. He has his own whipping boy, a boy that takes the punishment that is doled out to the prince if he does wrong.
Edward is also a prisoner, and this is more than just the fact that he is thrown into the arms of poverty. He is unable to escape Tom's father, who seems to always lurk around every corner. As he travels through the dark and dirty laneways of London and Southern England, he must face many trials and tribulations, one of them being the fact that Tom's father is a brute, and pretty much uses him for his own wicked purposes. He even attempts to set him up for a crime whose punishment is death. However, despite that he still has some awe of respectability about him that draws some people to him.
I suspect there is also some comment on the nature of crime and punishment. The reason that I suggest that is because he makes comments about the laws of Connecticut and the laws of Olde England. In particular he focuses on the death penalty, but more so the form of death that the penalty imposes. It is not so much that a person must die for their crime, but the crime also dictates the method of death. No doubt the worse the crime then the more painful the death. However this is not so because some minor crimes seem to attract the death of being submerged in boiling oil, and murder simply seems to result in swinging from a rope. These days there seems to be a desire to make the death penalty as painless as possible, however some question whether that is possible.
Personally, I am pretty much opposed to the death penalty. As I have said and will write, it is better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent man to be executed. If an innocent man is executed, that is it, there is no going back. Mind you, locking up an innocent man for years on end is still likely to cause irreparable damage, particularly since there is no compensation for the innocent man. An innocent man (or I should say person) who is locked up at the age of 25 and exonerated at the age of 35, has still lost 10 years of his life. Those ten years are not going to come back.
Then there is the idea that the punishment is determined by one's status in society. The wealthier you are the more likely that you will get a lesser sentence, simply because you can afford the best lawyers. However, sometimes you can simply be punished by being associated with the wrong people. I remember one case where a man was associating with another group, and two of them had rented a shed for working on cars. One of the men, with his friends, went and stole a bunch of cars, and the only thing the other guy had done was hear about it. As it happened, the guy that had heard about it ended up being the only person who had not had the charges dropped, and his lawyer simply made a bargain with the prosecution because somebody had to be convicted of the offence. This is simply not the way a legal system should work.
However, consider what Clemens says at the end of the book, how he points out that the number of crimes attracting the death penalty in Connecticut is around 25 while the number in England 100 years earlier was something like 225. In the same way we can compare our system with that of another country, such as Saudi Arabia. In that country there is a crime of forsaking your religion, which is punishable by death. There are other countries where you do not get a right or reply and are guilty until proven innocent. Mind you, that can be the same here, especially when the media has already convicted you long before the trial even begins. Though while we may point at another country and say 'at least we are not as bad as them' that does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to the flaws in our system. Personally, in a system where criminals are locked away in privately run institutions, which are considered to be the university of the underworld, we need to look for ways of reforming and helping people live in society, instead of locking them up and throwing away the key. Particularly since 90% of all prisoners are in prison due to drug related crimes, we must wake up an realise that there actually is a problem.